By Craig Whitlock, WashingtonPost.com
The U.S. military is on the verge of activating a partial missile shield over southern Europe, part of an intensifying global effort to build defenses against Iranian missiles amid a deepening impasse over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
Pentagon officials said they are nearing a deal to establish a key radar ground station, probably in Turkey or Bulgaria. Installation of the high-powered X-band radar would enable the first phase of the shield to become operational next year.
At the same time, the U.S. military is working with Israel and allies in the Persian Gulf to build and upgrade their missile defense capabilities. The United States installed a radar ground station in Israel in 2008 and is looking to place another in an Arab country in the gulf region. The radars would provide a critical early warning of any launches from Iran, improving the odds of shooting down a missile.
The missile defenses in Europe, Israel and the gulf are technically separate and in different stages of development. But they are all designed to plug into command-and-control systems operated by, or with, the U.S. military. The Israeli radar, for example, is operated by U.S. personnel and is already functional, feeding information to U.S. Navy ships operating in the Mediterranean.
Taken together, these initiatives constitute an attempt to contain Iran and negate its growing ability to aim missiles — perhaps one day armed with a nuclear warhead — at targets throughout the Middle East and Europe, including U.S. forces stationed there.
The concept of a missile shield began with former president Ronald Reagan, who first described his vision of a defense against a Soviet nuclear attack in his “Star Wars” speech in 1983. Its development accelerated during the George W. Bush administration, which saw missile defense as a way to deter emerging nuclear powers in Iran and North Korea.
It has expanded further under President Obama, despite the skepticism he expressed during the 2008 campaign about the feasibility and affordability of Bush’s plan for a shield in Europe.
In September, Obama announced that he was changing Bush’s approach. Instead of abandoning the idea, he directed the Pentagon to construct a far more extensive and flexible missile defense system in Europe that will be built in phases between now and 2020.
The missile defense plan for Europe has factored into the Senate’s debate over a new U.S.-Russia arms reduction treaty that would place fresh limits on the two countries’ nuclear arsenals. Russia has strongly opposed the European shield, and some Republican lawmakers have charged that the treaty could constrain the project.
Obama administration officials have dismissed the concerns.
Since last year, the Navy has been deploying Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers equipped with ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to patrol the Mediterranean Sea. The ships, featuring octagonal Spy-1 radars and arsenals of Standard Missile-3 interceptors, will form the backbone of Obama’s shield in Europe.
Unlike fixed ground-based interceptors, which were the mainstay of the Bush missile defense plan for Europe, Aegis ships are mobile and can easily move to areas considered most at risk of attack.
Another advantage is that Aegis ships can still be used for other missions, such as hunting pirates or submarines, instead of waiting for a missile attack that may never materialize.
“It’s very easily absorbed,” Capt. Mark Young, commanding officer of the Vella Gulf, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser now deployed to the Mediterranean, said of his ship’s new missile defense role. “We’re very capable, and we’ll find a way to advance the mission.”
“The system has to be able to operate to its utmost,” Young said in an interview in the Vella Gulf wardroom as the ship left the East Coast. “We’ve told our junior guys, ‘This is not just another Aegis ship. It’s a BMD platform.’ There’s no margin for error.”
Navy commanders said they have just one or two Aegis ships patrolling the eastern Mediterranean at a time. Pentagon officials said those numbers could eventually triple, with three on deployment and three more as relief ships, depending on the perceived threat from Iran.
The numbers may sound small, but lawmakers are concerned that the demand for Aegis ships worldwide could strain the Navy.
In addition to Europe, the U.S. Central Command in the Middle East and the U.S. Pacific Command require Aegis ships for ballistic missile defense against potential threats from Iran and North Korea. Only about half the Navy’s Aegis fleet is available at any given time; after deployment at sea, ships generally spend an equivalent period at their home ports so their crews can prepare for the next mission.
As a result, the Obama administration has plans to nearly double its number of Aegis ships with ballistic missile defenses, to 38 by 2015.
Vice Adm. Henry B. Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, based in Naples, Italy, said an option would be to assign some Aegis ships to home ports in Europe instead of making them sail constantly back and forth to the United States.
“It’s certainly something that’s on the table,” Harris told reporters in June. Other Navy officials have floated the idea of flying in fresh crews so a ship could more or less deploy continuously, obviating the need for long breaks.
U.S. military officials and analysts say it’s easy to dream up a nightmare scenario over the future of Iran’s nuclear program, which Western powers fear is aimed at the development of a nuclear weapon and which Iran insists is entirely peaceful. In an attempt to disable the program, Israel launches a pre-emptive attack. The Iranians retaliate with a wave of conventional missiles, not just against Israel, but also U.S. forces stationed in Europe and the Middle East.
“If Iran were actually to launch a missile attack on Europe, it wouldn’t be just one or two missiles, or a handful,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at a congressional hearing in June. “It would more likely be a salvo kind of attack, where you would be dealing potentially with scores or even hundreds of missiles.”
Such an attack could have “rapidly overwhelmed” the Bush missile defense shield for Europe, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, director of the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, said in an interview.
The Bush plan would have consisted of only 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a large radar installation in the Czech Republic. It was designed to shoot down long-range or even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) fired by Iran against Europe or the United States.
Subsequent U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that Iran’s efforts to build a long-range missile were moving slowly. Today, military officials estimate it would take Iran until 2015 at the earliest, and only with the assistance of another country, to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. Even then, military officials said, Iran would probably need much more time to build a reliable arsenal of ICBMs, which can be highly inaccurate in the early stages of development.
In contrast, Iran already has a large inventory of missiles with a range of up to 1,200 miles — putting southeastern Europe at risk. And it is pushing hard to reach other parts of the continent.
In response, Obama announced in September that the Pentagon would scrap Bush’s system for Europe and replace it with what he called a “phased, adaptive approach.” The first phase officially becomes operational next year. Aegis ships, armed with dozens of SM-3 missile interceptors, will patrol the Mediterranean and Black seas and link up with the high-power radar planned for southern Europe.
In 2015, the next phase will begin. Romania has agreed to host a land-based Aegis combat system on its territory.
In 2018, the system will expand further with another land-based Aegis system in Poland, as well as a new generation of SM-3 interceptors and additional sensors. The shield is scheduled to become complete by 2020, with the addition of even more advanced SM-3s.
Until last year, the Pentagon had thought an arsenal of 147 SM-3s would be sufficient for its missile defenses worldwide. Now, the Obama administration is looking to nearly triple that number, to 436, by 2015.
The Pentagon says the purpose of the European missile defense system is threefold: to protect Europe, to protect U.S. forces stationed there and to deter Iran from further development of its missile program.
It “will help us more effectively defend the country, more effectively defend our forces in Europe, and with our allies more effectively defend both their forces and populations and ultimately their territory of Europe as the system expands,” said James N. Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
It is a good deal for Europe, which is largely getting the protection for free. NATO allies, however, may eventually plug their own, more limited missile defense systems into the overall shield.
The Pentagon says countries that are providing territory for radar and ground interceptors will probably make financial contributions as negotiations are finalized. But otherwise, U.S. taxpayers will be footing the bill. U.S. defense officials said it is difficult to provide an overall estimate on what it will cost to build and operate the European shield, given that the Aegis ships and other components either already exist or were going to be built anyway by the U.S. military. The system will require an unspecified number of new SM-3 missiles, which cost between $10 million and $15 million apiece.
In November, during a summit in Lisbon, NATO members will vote on whether to make territorial missile defense part of the alliance’s overall mission.
If that happens, allies will eventually connect their localized missile defense systems — mainly Patriot missiles and other ground-based interceptors — to the larger framework. The United States and NATO would also have to sort out a unified command-and-control system, which could take years, officials said.
O’Reilly said combined defenses would feature the best of both worlds: an “upper layer” framework of SM-3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, interceptors, operated by the United States, that could shoot down enemy missiles in space or the upper atmosphere; and a “lower layer” of Patriot batteries, operated by European allies, providing a second layer of defense closer to the ground.
“If you have more than one opportunity to shoot at a missile,” O’Reilly said, “you get very high levels of probability of success.”